November 12, 2018

Another Look: Thoughts on Veterans Day

Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis (Nov 2018)

Another Look: Thoughts on Veterans Day

Men go to war for a hundred reasons,
But they all come back with the same demons.

• Slaid Cleaves

• • •

None of us who have escaped our nation’s veterans’ experiences on the battlefields can ever truly relate to what they’ve seen and known. We pin medals on their chests, honor them with annual holidays, put them on public display at ballgames, and wax poetic about their sacrifices. No doubt many of them are proud of their service and grateful for the recognition. However, I wonder if they think the rest of us are just spouting a lot of public patriotic bullshit when we so often forget about them in private, where such a great number of vets are homeless, jobless, fighting PTSD and countless other war-related debilities, going through divorces, battling alcohol and drug abuse, and at high risk for suicide. It must make a person feel freakish when he or she can’t attend a patriotic fireworks display because the explosions are too jarring, too upsetting.

I have so many mixed feelings on Veterans Day.

First of all, I have little personal experience with the military. My father and my father’s father and I were lucky. Our lives fell right in the cracks between wars in the 20th century, and though they performed military service in peacetime, I did not.

I turned 18 in 1974, barely missing Vietnam and the draft. Some of you know what that time was like in the U.S., and I was one who was not in favor of the war, to put it mildly. I had no interest in the military in those days.

My sons and daughters now live in the age of the all-volunteer military, and none of them enlisted. I’m glad, especially given the extended wars we have fought over the past twelve years.

Second, I have made the acquaintance of many who have served, and who are veterans of wars. One of our churches was near Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. We had military personnel and families in and out of our congregation, and I visited patients in the VA hospital there. Since becoming a hospice chaplain, I have had the privilege of conversing with many veterans, especially from World War II. Most are loathe to speak of their war experiences in specific terms, and for good reason. I’ve met people who fought in most of the great battles of that war, which is to say, they have seen horror and human suffering on a scale and in detail that I can scarcely imagine. I have gained great respect for these G.I. Joes. In fact, I admire them, like them, and have grown to treasure learning from them. But it sickens my stomach to think of my sons or daughters or grandchildren going through what they endured.

Third, I am not a proponent of civil religion. I do believe that love of country is natural and good, a gift of common grace. I consider it a duty to show appreciation for those who sacrificed to make our lives better. I am also proud to honor the symbols of our nation and embrace the notions of liberty and representative democracy that they represent. But I do not give them ultimate value or worship them. The national flag does not belong in the sanctuaries of our churches — they are foreign embassies of a different Kingdom. I pray “God bless America” as a part of my intercessions “for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1Tim. 2:1). A friend of mine has a bumper sticker that says, “God bless all nations,” and I concur. Veterans Day is not a holy day on the church calendar, though at the same time, such remembrances do (and should) play a role as we think about our faith.

Fourth, all my life I have heard, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” What I’ve seen is that remembering doesn’t seem to help much either. We continue to fight wars, thinking they will bring peace. In fact, we are just wrapping up the two longest wars the U.S. has ever fought, and the possibility of future wars lies just beyond the horizon. The amount of resources we have expended to defeat our enemies over the past twelve years boggles the mind. The human cost has been and remains staggering on all sides. For generations, families will suffer because this generation felt it necessary to go to war. “Remembering” on Veteran’s Day must not only involve rituals of honor, but also a renewed commitment to care for those whose lives have been disrupted and devastated by war. And above all, we must pursue determined, diligent efforts to promote liberty and justice for all, the things that make for peace.

Fifth, when thinking about these things, I try to take my cues from the Bible and the best of Christian tradition. Scripture reflects the violence and conflict that is pervasive in a sinful world, even among the religious. Church history likewise. However, from both we also hear prophets’ voices above the din, bringing words from God, proclaiming and promoting shalom — human flourishing in a renewed and reconciled world. The ultimate vision of Christianity is a new creation in which the Tree of Life provides healing for all nations. Veterans Day provides yet another opportunity for the Church to proclaim this hope-filled Gospel, this message of the peace that was won when Jesus absorbed violence rather than exercising it. Losing the war, he won shalom for all. Eagerly, we now long for its consummation.

And how, on Veterans Day, shall we be messengers of that peace?

Sermon: The Widow’s Plight

Sermon: The Widow’s Plight

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

• Mark 12:38-44

• • •

The Widow’s Mite. Glanzman

Every once in a while in my work, I get to know a patient whose family expresses a specific concern to me. The patient is is usually an older woman who is very religious. Problem is, despite her small, fixed income, she is sending money — sometimes lots of money — to televangelists or to certain television religious programs. Often these so called “ministries” are the kind that constantly promise their viewers blessings for giving financially. They preach a prosperity gospel, making claims that God will bring a harvest of financial blessing to those who plant “seeds of faith” by sending them money. Some of these preachers live lavish, luxurious lifestyles, flying around in their private jets to and from their mansions, while many of their supporters are humble people like the elderly women I visit who really can’t afford to be sending them money.

In today’s Gospel, we meet someone who reminds me of these women, a widow who spends her last few coins at the Temple. I’m afraid that we have long misunderstood her story and what Jesus was trying to tell us by pointing her out.

The story we know as “The Widow’s Mite” is closely tied to the story that comes right before it. The key to understanding why Jesus directed our attention to this woman lies in reading the two stories we have in today’s lesson together.

In the first story, Jesus calls attention to the scribes. The scribes were part of the religious leadership of the Jewish people. They were, as it were, religious lawyers who handled matters of interpretation. They ruled on religious disputes, based upon interpretations of the scriptures and other religious writings and laws.

One example of their rulings is found in Mark, chapter 7. Jesus criticized them for making a ruling known as “corban.” Under the corban principle, a person made a vow declaring that a portion of his money was devoted to God. That meant it could no longer be used for other things. Even if the man’s parents became poor and needed that money, the scribes ruled that it had been given to God by a sacred vow and was no longer available to help them.

Jesus disagreed. He said there was a more fundamental and important law that said “Honor your father and mother.” God’s laws were given to help people, not hurt them. They were given to promote love and justice, not to help us find ways around being loving and just.

In today’s text, Jesus criticizes the scribes for treating widows the same way. He says that the scribes were “devouring widows’ houses.” In other words, the scribes were part of a religious system that had devastating effects on the poor and needy people of Israel.

This leads us to the second story in today’s Gospel. Immediately after criticizing the scribes for their mistreatment of widows, we have the story of a widow — a poor woman who goes to the Temple and puts her last two coins into the Temple offering box. Jesus points her out to his disciples as she puts in everything she has.

Now the question is this: why does Jesus point her out?

The interpretation I have heard most often is that he is commending this widow as an example of sacrificial giving. In contrast to wealthy religious people like the scribes, who only give a portion of their income, this woman gave her everything. She represents total devotion to God, while many of the religious people only give a little bit of the riches they have.

I do not agree. I don’t think Jesus is celebrating this woman’s generosity.

Instead, I think he is lamenting that she is part of a religious system in which she thinks she has to give all she has to live on to be acceptable to God. The scribes, Jesus said, were part of a religious system that devoured widows’ houses. Now, here is a poor widow whose house is being devoured. Because of her religion, she gave and gave until she had nothing.

Let’s imagine that this woman came to you for counsel. If she said, “I only have five dollars left in my bank account. The church is having a special offering this week and I think God wants me give it all to the church,” how would you advise her?

I doubt very much that any of us would think that God wanted her to give her last little bit to the church.

Wouldn’t we all think — hey, this poor widow needs help! As the church, we should be giving to help her, not demanding that she give every penny she has to help the church!

But she was part of a religious system that led her to think she had to sacrifice everything in order to be a good religious person. Like the thousands of poor people who send money to televangelists thinking that it’s the way to get God to bless their faith, this woman had been brainwashed into a faulty view of God and what it means to love God.

No, Jesus is not celebrating her sacrificial faith, he is weeping because the religion she’s part of is leading her astray and ruining her life. And he is pointing out to his disciples that this is not the way God means it to be. It would only be a few days later that that same religious system hung Jesus on a cross.

As Lutherans, we are heirs of a tradition that has fought against this kind of religion ever since the days of Martin Luther. Back then, the issue was indulgences. The church developed an entire system of the afterlife and then sold people tickets out of Purgatory to finance its building projects. Poor people all over Europe coughed up the little they had so that great monuments might be built. The people thought they were doing the right thing, the religious thing. They were contributing their money for God’s glory. They were winning their salvation. But Luther saw that it was all a sham and he condemned the injustice of it all.

Right after this story about the widow, Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple. As they converse, Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the religious system that took advantage of poor widows like this one. “One day,” Jesus said, “this Temple and the unjust religion that has developed here will come tumbling down until there is not one stone left upon another.”

Jesus and Luther both helped to remind us that we are not here to serve God by following manmade religious rules and expectations. We are here to receive God’s love by faith and then to share it with one another and our neighbors, especially those in hard and sad life situations.

I think God is calling us today to have our eyes open, to look around us as Jesus’ disciples did that day, to let Jesus show us that even religion can have a damaging, deadly effect on those who are involved with it.

In contrast, the faith of Christ enlivens us, empowers us, and frees us to do what is just, to be devoted to faithful love, and to walk humbly with our God. May it be so with us.


The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: November 10, 2018

The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: November 10, 2018

Welcome to Brunch this Saturday. Snowflakes have been in the air ’round these parts this week, and although I took pictures like the one above just last weekend, now brown and gray are beginning to dominate nature’s color palette. With no baseball to buoy my spirit, a guy could get depressed. Thankfully, I have you — my friends — to share coffee and conversation with on this frosty November morning. Snacks today courtesy of The Far Side.

To get the conversation going, let’s begin with a few questions to bat around the table…

• • •

Questions of the Week…

What are faith groups doing to minister to people in the Honduran caravan?

If our Sunday worship services are made-for-TV, why attend them live?

What can dying children teach us about how to respond to mass shootings?

What does Genesis 1 teach us about the divine right of everybody?

What do blue and red America have in common?

Should childhood trauma be treated as a public health crisis?

What are we learning about the migration of prehistoric humans into the Americas?

• • •

• • •

A Special Remembrance Day…

ALBERT, FRANCE – NOVEMBER 08: The sunrise burns off the morning mist over the remains of trenches in the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel on November 09, 2018 in Albert, France. The Somme was one of the bloodiest battles of World War One with more than one million casualties over 141 days. The fighting began just before 7.30am on the morning of July 1, 1916 and was to become known as the allies bloodiest day. The centenary of the end of World War One will be marked this Sunday with commemorations and services of remembrance by people around the world. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

From The Independent:

This Sunday marks 100 years since the Armistice was signed in November 1918, bringing an end to the First World War.

The agreement between the Allies and a vanquished Germany required the latter to leave all occupied territories in Western Europe within two weeks and surrender 5,000 guns, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 planes.

Big Ben sounded in Parliament Square to ring in the news as thousands gathered in Westminster and outside Buckingham Palace roaring in celebration, sparking three days of jubilation across Britain, with members of the public climbing the lions in Trafalgar Square and tearing down advertising hoardings appealing for investment in war bonds to burn on bonfires.

In the House of Commons, the prime minister, Lloyd George, concluded his address with the declaration: “I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came an end to all wars.”

Here are some photos of traditional poppy displays in England and beyond to celebrate the end of one of the most pivotal wars in modern history.

Workers at the insurance market Lloyd’s of London watch as poppies fall through the atrium of the building during Friday’s commemoration service

In Hull Minster, people admire an installation created by artist Martin Waters entitled “Coming Home”

Thousands of individually knitted poppies cascade down the side of St John the Baptist church in North Baddesley, Hampshire

Meanwhile Down Under, EU ambassadors help to install poppies ahead of Remembrance Day commemorations in Canberra, Australia

“Still now and always in our hearts”: Crosses at the official opening of the Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Lydiard House and Park, Royal Wootton Bassett

Looking out across a battlefield from an Anzac pill box near the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders in 1917.

The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions – but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.

• Edmund Taylor

• • •

• • •

Computers coming between us…

As a hospice chaplain, I use a laptop computer to document my visits and do other work-related tasks. Our nurses and some of our other clinicians carry their laptops into homes and other care settings, and in many cases this is necessary and appropriate. But, as a chaplain, I have never felt comfortable having my computer open during a visit. Eye contact, body language, and paying attention in the strongest ways possible is essential to my work. I can’t allow myself the distraction of a computer between my patient/family and me.

Dr. Atul Gwande, one of our best writers about medical care in our day, has written an article in the New Yorker called Why Doctors Hate Their Computers, in which he says that many doctors are feeling more and more trapped behind their screens.

My hospital had, over the years, computerized many records and processes, but the new system would give us one platform for doing almost everything health professionals needed—recording and communicating our medical observations, sending prescriptions to a patient’s pharmacy, ordering tests and scans, viewing results, scheduling surgery, sending insurance bills. With Epic, paper lab-order slips, vital-signs charts, and hospital-ward records would disappear. We’d be greener, faster, better.

But three years later I’ve come to feel that a system that promised to increase my mastery over my work has, instead, increased my work’s mastery over me. I’m not the only one. A 2016 study found that physicians spent about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient—whatever the brand of medical software. In the examination room, physicians devoted half of their patient time facing the screen to do electronic tasks. And these tasks were spilling over after hours. The University of Wisconsin found that the average workday for its family physicians had grown to eleven and a half hours. The result has been epidemic levels of burnout among clinicians. Forty per cent screen positive for depression, and seven per cent report suicidal thinking—almost double the rate of the general working population.

Something’s gone terribly wrong. Doctors are among the most technology-avid people in society; computerization has simplified tasks in many industries. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers.

• • •

• • •

50 years ago in music…

Two landmark albums were released fifty years ago, and now commemorative editions are available to not only remind us of the great music but also to take us behind the scenes so that we can learn about how these musicians plied their craft.

From Rolling Stone:

In late May, 1968, the Beatles convened at guitarist George Harrison’s English country home with an extraordinary body of raw materials for their next album. The so-called “Esher demos” — 27 songs taped on Harrison’s four-track machine — were at once stark and full, solo acoustic blueprints already outfitted with signature flourishes: double-tracked vocals; John Lennon’s raindrop-arpeggio guitar in “Dear Prudence”; the future guitar solo in “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” hummed by Paul McCartney.

There was evidence too of tension and estrangement: Lennon’s jagged rhythms and aggressive cynicism (“Revolution,” “Yer Blues”); McCartney’s determined optimism (“Blackbird”) and almost mutinous cheer (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”). In his Appalachian-ballad draft of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Harrison pointedly censured his bandmates, singing “The problems you sow are the troubles you’re reaping.” He dropped the line in the final version. His dismay in the song remained.

Those recordings, issued in full for the first time, are the dominant revelation in the 50th-anniversary expansion of The Beatles. At 30 tracks on two LPs and dubbed “The White Album” for its blank-canvas sleeve, it was the group’s longest, most eclectic and emotionally blunt record – an admission of frayed nerves and strained bonds in the zigzag of garage-roots rock, delicate balladry, proto-metal fury, country ham and radical experiment. The “Super Deluxe” edition of The Beatles has even more. In addition to the demos and a new remix of the album overseen by Giles Martin, son of the late producer George Martin, there are 50 tracks of the work in progress – outtakes and sketches; roads not taken and songs left behind – across the summer and fall of 1968.

From American Songwriter:

Even diehard Hendrix fans have probably lost track of how often the guitarist’s 76-minute opus Electric Ladyland has been reissued. It was the first and only of his three albums to hit the top of the Billboard charts after its October 1968 release and remains not only his best-selling work, but his most influential and critically acclaimed one.

Books have been written about the disc, but suffice it to say that Hendrix not only freed himself from the tightly constructed song structures of his first two sets, but also included more of the myriad influences that ran through his music. It was also the first time he had complete creative control — at least musically — over the final product. From deep-blues jamming (the quarter hour “Voodoo Chile” never lags) to stoned out psychedelic space-rock (13 mind-expanding minutes of “1983 … [A Merman I Should Turn to Be]”), jazzy improvisation (“Rainy Day, Dream Away”), politically edged rockers (“House Burning Down”), pop-crunchers that could have been on his earlier discs (“Gypsy Eyes,” “Crosstown Traffic”), and even a few he didn’t write (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”), bassist Noel Redding’s somewhat incongruous bit of UK glam, “Little Miss Strange”), this was Hendrix’s most expansive and personal statement. It was also the last studio album he’d live to see released. 

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